Friday, March 13, 2009


This article is copied from and written by David Soffa, Berkeley, 2002

Amalia Baka
Mavi Boncuk Amalia! Old Greek Songs in the New Land 1923-1950

Three days after her 15th birthday, traveling by herself on the The Kaiser Franz Josef I, Mazaltov (Mally) Matsa of Janina, Turkey, steamed toward the new land. Two weeks shy of a year later she married Jack Saretta, a fellow from her hometown, and set up housekeeping on Rivington Street in New York's Lower East Side, a short walk from the New York Janina Synagogue. She had work as a seamstress and he made silk flowers for lady's hats.

The Janina she left in 1912 was diverse, fractious, complicated, multinational and multicultural, in many ways similar to New York. Romaniote Jews had lived in Janina for about 1,800 years. Life for Mally had been strictly defined by that tradition. In the Romaniote community, girls were born to a servile position in a male-dominated world, their births not recorded, their early education limited to that which would best serve their future husbands, and their worth reckoned in the end by the number of male children they might bear. A Rornaniote girl was kept at home until her father chose a husband for her. When she married, she was sent to live in the home of her new husband.

Mally's marriage was certainly arranged before she left Janina. The home she made in the new land was intended to continue the old ways. The enumerator for the 1920 census found Mally and Jack with two daughters, Diamond and Esther Cleoniki, named after their grandmothers in the Romaniote tradition. The old ways had a good foothold on New York's Lower East Side, although for Mally the pressures and freedoms to be found on foreign shores had shaped changes even before she landed. She had traveled by herself on the Kaiser Franz Josef I, an immense modern ocean liner, only months from its own maiden voyage (actually the largest ship ever to fly the Austrian flag). At Ellis Island she was detained because she did not have the $50 in cash required of new immigrants; after a phone call she was sponsored by her Aunt Rachel. Life in New York demanded money, so Mally got a job sewing in a factory.

Circumstance had forced her to accept a level of responsibility and independence forbidden Romaniote girls in Janina, and with it came opportunities that were also customarily denied. In Janina, Mally lived within Jewish, Greek, and Turkish cultures, and threads of each are woven through her songs. About the only public or semi-public activity that Romaniote women could engage in was the keening of laments at the time of death. Romaniote religious ceremony is conducted in demotic, that is, everyday spoken Greek, instead of Hebrew, and Romaniote singing also borrowed traditional Greek melodies. The memory of these songs and laments was deeply instilled, and they would always be an important part of Mally's repertoire. Mally sang all her life.

Her talent for singing was "discovered" when she sang in the factory where she sewed, or when she sang while hanging up her laundry. Both stories are probably true. She sang in Greek and Turkish, and by the early 1920s had begun singing professionally as Amalia in Greek cafe-amans and Turkish clubs. Her first recordings were eight Turkish songs for the M. G. Parsekian Record Company, across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey; then in Chicago, she recorded six Greek and Turkish songs for the Greek Record Company of George Gretsis and Spiros Stamos. Amalia's independent spirit and emerging career caused trouble at home. In the old country, women who sang in clubs were considered prostitutes- fallen women at best.

Jack divorced her, and Cleoniki was sent to live in Greece ("kidnapped", Diamond says). In 1926 Mally converted to the Greek Othodox Church in order to marry Gus Bakas, and continued recording as Amalia Baka from 1927 to 1929. Gus worked in the restaurant business, and Amalia was herself involved in clubs and restaurants, both as owner and as headline entertainment. Live performances in Turkish clubs, cafe-amans and restaurants were the mainstay of Amalia's singing career. She was always working, according to her daughter, Diamond, who from the beginning was with her at recording sessions and on stage, playing doumbek, encouraging her with "Ya sou, Mitera! " ("your health, mother!") and sometimes singing duets with her. Cafe-amans were lively and numerous in Prohibition-era New York. Entertainment, atmosphere and booze were a magic combination, and dozens flourished around Eighth and Ninth Avenues at 33rd and 34th Streets, packed with people from all parts of the city. Amalia opened her own club, the Cafe-Aman Pavsilipon, with, as Diamond remembers, "- a few tables and a bottle of bootleg booze ... little by little they were coming in ... the priest came in, too."

Amalia did not record in the 1930s, but traveled quite a bit, often with singer George Katsaros, and sang at clubs, restaurants, and resorts in an informal circuit that included New York, the Catskills and Finger Lakes areas of New York, and cities with large Greek populations such as Detroit, Chicago, Gary (Indiana) and Philadelphia.

By 1940 Amalia and Diamond were living in Chicago, and Amalia was involved with a club/restaurant, the Pantheon, near Halsted Street in the heart of "the Delta," Chicago's old Greektown. Chicago Greek restaurants were also bars and nightclubs, social watering holes with live entertainment, cadres of regulars and many stories. Amalia was a spirited and memorable participant who helped lead the charge for about two decades and is still remembered with fondness and awe. "If she didn't like you, chairs would fly", recalled John Katsikas, a cymbalon and samtouri player who accompanied Amalia.

Her performance of "Bahaiotiko," a slow dirge, is remembered still, as is her prowess at poker and barbuti dice. To a patron who needed money to get married she gave a gold ring from her own finger, "and she would swear like a man". In the early 1940s Amalia was recording again, this time for Ajdin AsIlan's MeRe/ Balkan/ Gadinis/ Kalaphone/ Metropolitan family of labels in New York, in which she also had part ownership. Her recording sessions in New York were with luminaries such as clarinetists Gus Gadinis, John Pappas and John Dalas, kanounists Garbis Bakirgian and Theodore Kappas, and violinists Alexis Zervas and Nick Doneff.

During World War II Greek music in the United States saw a revival of songs and styles that had originated or were popular in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the time of the influx of ethnic Greek refugees from Turkey into Greece as part of the 1922 League of Nations relocations. Over a third of Amalia's recordings from this period were old songs from her own or from pioneer Greek vocalist Coula Antonopoulos's early recorded repertoire. Mostly laments or songs that expressed resilience in the face of troubles, they offered some solace to expatriates horrified at the fate of Greece and their families and friends there during World War II.

Amalia retired in the early 1960s. Chicago's redevelopment efforts had removed the heart of Greektown to make way for the University of Illinois Chicago campus, and Amalia's home and the restaurants and clubs she sang in were destroyed. Diamond had moved to Florida in 1960 and opened the New Hellas restaurant in Tarpon Springs, close to where the sponge boats docked. Amalia followed in 1974, moving to New Port Richie, just north of the docks. Amalia died in 1979. Her obituary did not mention that she was a singer, that one of the most fluid and evocative of Greek voices had been stilled.

Amalia lived and sang with great passion. Though her repertoire was very traditional she made her songs her own by comments and ad libs while singing, by changing words, and by using songs to show what was happening in her life. She wrote "Elenitsa Mou" when she was baptized, taking the baptismal name Eleni, and she wrote and sang "Diamontoula Mou" for her daughter Diamond. Unlike her contemporaries Marika Papagika and Coula Antonopoulos, she did not sing much of the world of hash, manges and rebetes- most of her recorded songs are about love. In her long experience singing for live audiences in the small clubs she developed a very personal and intimate style. She understood and exploited the subtleties of the electric microphone from its first years in the recording medium to bring a palpable closeness and immediacy to her recordings.

Remarkable within ordinary circumstances, her story is almost incredible when her own background is considered. Uprooted and cast to sea on a floating skyscraper to make her way in a boisterous and challenging world, she responded with an indomitable, creative and generous spirit that is still left in her songs.

David Soffa, Berkeley, 2002

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